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Jewish World Review March 25, 1999 /8 Nissan 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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'Just doin' it'

(JWR) ---- (
WITH THE BRAVE EXCEPTION of Dr. Laura Schlesinger, no one uses the term "shacking up" anymore. Living together without benefit of marriage now raises only the most sensitive of eyebrows. Is the widespread acceptance of cohabitation a good idea? Most people have accepted the new dispensation uncritically.

But the National Marriage Project, a privately funded research program affiliated with Rutgers University, wants you to know that the track record of "living together" is not so great --- particularly if the goal is a long and happy marriage.

Living together is seen by many people, particularly the young, as a sort of test drive for marriage. Let's move in together, they reason, and find out if we're compatible. Sixty percent of high school seniors in a recent survey endorsed the practice. But according to the available data, living together before marriage not only does not contribute to marital happiness, it may actually increase the likelihood of eventual divorce.

A 1992 study concluded that "prior-cohabitors" had a 46 percent greater hazard of divorce than non-cohabitors.

That's easy to explain, some have said, it's self-selection. People who choose to cohabit are less conventional, less religious and accordingly more likely than other kinds of people to get divorced. That's logical enough. But even when the researchers controlled for the free-spirit factor, a statistically significant gap still remained between those who had lived together before marriage and those who hadn't.

(These data do not apply to those couples who move in together during their engagement period or just prior to the wedding.)

It is difficult to pin down exactly how cohabitation contributes to later marital instability. The researchers affiliated with the National Marriage Project speculate that the non-marital living arrangement tends to generate its own dynamic. It may resemble a marriage, but both partners are highly aware that it is far more than the lack of a "piece of paper" that separates them from married couples. Each member of the pair places greater value on his own autonomy than on the durability of the relationship.

Such habits of mind appear to become ingrained over time. People who experience serial cohabitations before marriage have much higher divorce rates than those who lived with only one person. Having lived through the dissolution of one or many relationships increases one's tolerance for heartbreak and instability, and perhaps hardens people in their idiosyncrasies. Rather than proving a test run for marriage, living together instead can prove a test run for eventual loneliness.

My own guess is that cohabitation leeches a good deal of the romance out of marriage. The breathless excitement a young married couple feels about setting up house together and sleeping in the same bed is one of the great joys of life. Looking back on it later cements the sense that marriage is something sacred and precious. But if the male/female living arrangement becomes a matter of convenience rather than commitment, if crossing a threshold is not accompanied by thrown rice and silver gift packages, it does become more hollow and more brittle.

Unsurprisingly, the National Marriage Project data show that cohabitation is most harmful for children. In 1997, 36 percent of these households included children, up from only 21 percent 10 years before. There are estimates that half of America's children will spend some time in a cohabiting household before the age of 16, and three-quarters of these children will see their parents split up.

(Only one-third of children born to married couples will endure a divorce.)

The high split rate among cohabitors means that the children are nearly certain to live with a non-biological parent (mom's boyfriend) for some time. The rates of child abuse in such settings are far higher than in married-couple families. A British study found that children living with mom and her boyfriend were 33 times more likely to be abused physically and sexually than children living with both biological parents.

As with so many of the cultural changes of the past three decades, the trend toward cohabitation -- even leaving morality to one side -- turns out to be unsatisfying for adults and terrible for children.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate